Mike Kueber's Blog

August 31, 2010

E-Verify in Arizona

Despite the vitriol surrounding the illegal-immigration issue in America, most people agree that illegal immigration needs to be stopped.  Unfortunately, many liberals think the only way to stop illegal immigration is to open our borders to nearly unlimited immigration (either permanent status or work visas).  Whereas, conservatives think that more border security can and should make our border impenetrable.  I think neither is correct.  The key to stopping illegal immigration is, not only to strengthen our border security, but also to reduce the incentive for illegal immigration and to apprehend and deport those who sneak themselves through our border security. 

Incentives 

Currently, there are at least four major incentives for illegal immigration:

  1. Jobs;
  2. Free public education;
  3. Free medical care; and
  4. Birthright citizenship.

Jobs

Congress and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have attempted to reduce employment opportunities for illegal immigrants by creating a database called E-Verify that employers can check to determine whether an employee or potential employee is a legal resident of America.  Although the federal government has made use of the database voluntary, several states have enacted laws requiring employers to use E-Verify.  One of those states is Arizona.

In 2007, Arizona enacted its Legal Arizona Workers Act, which requires employers to check E-Verify before hiring an individual.  Although federal law (the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986) prohibits employers from knowingly employing illegal immigrants, it does not require them to use E-Verify.  Not surprisingly, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano challenged the constitutionality of Arizona’s E-Verify law (CPLC v. Napolitano), just as she has done with the HB 1070, and the legal rationale is the same – i.e., the federal law is supreme and pre-empts any state legislation on this issue.  However, unlike HB 1070, a federal district judge has upheld the constitutionality of AZ’s E-Verify requirement and that ruling has been upheld by the liberal 9th Circuit Court of Appeal.  On June 26, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review the matter – now styled as U.S.  Chamber of Commerce v. Candelaria

Legal commentators have suggested that, although AZ’s HB 1070 has received much more publicity, the E-Verify case may be more important because it is much further along in the review process and a Supreme Court decision will likely provide much guidance to the state legislatures that are attempting to craft legislation that attacks illegal immigration without being subject to preemption by the federal government.  A decision is due before June 2011.    

Free public education

I have previously addressed in my blog the incentive created by free public education for illegal immigrants.  (See “Bad law – stuck on stupid”; June 25, 2010.)  A Supreme Court decision in 1982 – Plyler v. Doe – required Texas to provide free education to illegal immigrants, and that decision can be reversed either by the Court recognizing that its reasoning is no longer appropriate or by Congress declaring that public education for illegal immigrants is contrary to sound immigration policy.

Free medical care and birthright citizenship

Although free, high-quality medical care is an incentive for illegal immigration, it would be contrary to American values to deny emergency care to anyone, even if that person has illegally entered America to have her baby in America.  But there is absolutely no persuasive argument for granting American citizenship to that baby.  Of course, the best interests of the child would be to receive citizenship, but America can’t be responsible for the best interests all of the children of the world.  Unfortunately, Texas politicians seem to be standing in the way of clarifying the 14th Amendment.  Maverick Senator Lindsay Graham from South Carolina has bravely proposed hearings on clarifying the 14th Amendment, but Texas Senator John Cornyn recently reversed his prior support for these hearings after meeting with some South Texas politicians. 

Detecting and deporting illegal immigrants

Eliminating incentives for illegal immigration will cause a lot of self-deportation, as even liberals concede that illegal immigration has diminished because of the recession in America.  But the elimination of incentives needs to be supplemented by detection and deportation.  In the past few years, there have developed many pockets of protection for illegal immigrants – so-called sanctuary cities.  Illegal immigrants in those cities have no fear of detection by local authorities because those authorities are expressly prohibited from reporting illegal immigrants to federal authorities.  Some argue that Houston and San Antonio are sanctuary cities because of their “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies.  

Arizona’s HB 1070 is essentially an anti-sanctuary law and is the most robust attempt by a political entity to detect illegal immigrants.  But the law is being challenged by the federal government, and even worse, there are recent news reports that the Obama administration has virtually ceased deportation of illegal immigrants unless they are caught violating criminal laws.  Thus, even if local officials detect illegal immigrants, the federal government may decline to deport them. 

If HB 1070 is upheld, the continued refusal of the President to enforce our nation’s immigration law could result in a constitutional crisis or even impeachment.

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August 30, 2010

An open letter to Obama’s Fiscal Commission

Filed under: Economics,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 5:37 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Dear Commissioners:

 Reforming Social Security is essential to attaining fiscal responsibility in America.  Although this program has nobly served its original purpose of creating a safety net for senior citizens, I suggest that now is an opportune time to decide how Social Security should look in 2050 and then develop a transition process to get us there.

The core principle behind Social Security is that no senior citizen should live in poverty.  Therefore, our starting position should be that every senior citizen should receive benefits sufficient to remain out of poverty (e.g., 110% above the poverty line for an area).  This safety-net benefit should be funded by an uncapped flat tax on income, unlike the current FICA wage tax that is capped at $110,000.  I expect that the rate for an uncapped flat tax to fund a poverty-line safety net would be low enough to be palatable to the vast majority of Americans, but to ensure broad acceptance, I suggest that the benefits should not be needs-based.

Having secured our core principle of eliminating senior-citizen poverty, the next step is to consider the role of the government in middle-class retirement planning.  There are two principal options:

  1. Tweaking the current system by (a) raising the retirement age, (b) reducing benefits, or (c) increasing the FICA tax; or
  2. Privatizing the accounts.

As a conservative, I am pre-disposed toward privatized accounts because they reduce the role of government.  Although the recent jolt to the stock market starkly reveals one of the dangers associated with privatized accounts, I continue to favor them, not only to reduce the role of government, but also to enhance an individual’s appreciation for capital.  Social Security is essentially an annuity, and the annuity owner feels an incentive to start drawing on it as soon as possible, often at age 62.  By contrast, a privatized account feels like a capital asset, and the owner wants to protect and grow that asset as long as possible.  I believe that this tendency will smooth out the demographic fluctuations because, instead of trying to deplete an annuity, an individual will try to grow it and then bequeath it to heirs.

Of course, there is a third option – i.e., completely eliminating the middle-class accounts and instead rely on 401k-type accounts to provide middle-class retirement.  The question is whether middle-class people should be required to save for a middle-class retirement.  In the short-term, I think the answer is yes because many lack the necessary discipline to do this on their own, but in the long term, I think our country is better off if its citizens are free to make their own retirement decisions.

Thanks for your consideration.

Mike Kueber

San Antonio, TX
mkueber001@satx.rr.com

Successful parenting

A few days ago my favorite columnist David Brooks wrote a column in the NYTimes to discuss whether Obama’s stimulus was too expensive.   In the column, Brooks compared managing the economy to being a parent: 

  • “The economy can’t be played like a piano — press a fiscal key here and the right job creation notes come out over there. Instead, economic management is more like parenting. If you instill good values and create a secure climate then, through some mysterious process you will never understand, things will probably end well.”

Brooks’ column didn’t say more about the parenting analogy, but the thought stuck with me.  Can parenting be that simple? 

Upon reflection, parenting isn’t that simple.  Brooks’ prescription seems to be an example of begging the question.  (Technically, the ubiquitous phrase “begging the question” doesn’t mean evading the issue or inviting the obvious questions, but rather it means basing a conclusion on an assumption that is as much in need of proof or demonstration as the conclusion itself.  See Bryan Garner’s book, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage.) 

The goal of instilling good values invites two obvious follow-up questions – (1) how do you instill values, and (2) which values do you want to instill?  The first question is easier.  A parent instills values by example.  That old saying of “do as I say, not as I do” is a joke, not an effective strategy.  As they say back home, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”  If you want your child to assume a value, you need to display it consistently. 

The more difficult question is to determine which values you want to instill.  One of the most important values is self-esteem.  You want children to like themselves, and parents can help by liking themselves.  A relatively new phrase that I like that substitutes for self-respect or self-worth is “being comfortable in your own skin.”  Parents who are comfortable in their own skin are much less likely to be hyper-critical or obsessive about their children.  Instead they will allow their children to develop in their own unique way.

While you want your children to like themselves, you don’t want them to become narcissistic (what we used to call self-centered).  My favorite example of learning a little humility was George Bush-41 as a child being often reminded by his mother to avoid asking for more than his fair share of attention from his teacher.  This practice is exactly the opposite of what most elitists do.  In fact, there are studies showing that those in higher socio-economic classes often get more than their fair share in life because they have been raised to demand it at every turn.  If you don’t want your child to be a squeaky wheel, don’t be one yourself.

The same principle applies to other values that you hope to instill.  Roman Catholics have seven virtues – prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, and love – and that is a good place to start.  Plus the Protestant work ethic.  And that none of us is perfect and each of us is a work in progress.  But most importantly, remember to practice what you preach.

August 29, 2010

America as a republic

When I started my congressional campaign, I quickly experienced two incidents that made me think about what it means for America to be a republic.  The first incident occurred when I read the platform of the Republican Party of Texas.  The platform contained a plank stating its opposition to initiative (a law created directly by the voters) and referendum (a law directly overturned by the voters).  That plank shocked me.  As an anti-establishment person, I had always considered grassroots activity to be a good thing, and nothing could be more grassroots, anti-establishment than initiative and referendum.  The second incident occurred during my first newspaper interview.  A reporter asked me what I would do if my constituents felt one way about a proposed law and I felt another way.  I responded that in most situations I would vote my best judgment, but in some situations where my constituents had a good understanding of the issue I would defer to their judgment.  Later in the campaign, it occurred to me that both of these incidents related to America as a republic. 

Although I majored in political science in college, I have long since forgotten a lot of the nuances to various types of government.  A quick refresher on the meaning of “republic” revealed that the term generally has been used to distinguish between government by a person (monarchy) and government by the people (republic).  When Ben Franklin was asked to describe the type of government created by our Constitution, he said, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”  The father of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison, elaborated further by describing the American republic as a representative democracy instead of a direct democracy.  That is really the crux of what was involved in my two campaign incidents – i.e., what sort of representative democracy is best for America?

Initiatives and referendums are a form of direct democracy authorized in 24 states, and they enable voters to do something that their elected representatives have failed to do.  Obviously, initiatives and referendums wouldn’t be necessary if reps did what their constituents wanted, but the Republic tradition in America often causes reps to use their best judgment instead of their constituents’ judgment.  That was the question essentially posed to me in my first newspaper interview.  (Also, some reps allow their votes to be corrupted by campaign contributions.)  In my opinion, many social issues – such as abortion, gun control, and same-sex marriage – clearly fit into this category of constituent-driven positions, but some economic issues do to – e.g., a national sales tax. 

My anti-establishment tendencies pre-dispose me to like initiatives and referendum, but I have seen the danger of demagoguery in some situations, especially with draconian taxing limitations in California and Massachusetts.  This danger should not, however, make us afraid to give the people want they want.  We should be more concerned about frustrated, disillusioned citizens than we should be about citizens who don’t know what’s good for them.  There’s only one thing worse than elected reps telling the people that the reps know what’s best is for the people, and that is for unelected judges telling people that the judges know what’s best for the people.  Such arrogance threatens the fundamental legitimacy of government, without which our government can’t survive.

August 26, 2010

My Top-12 things to do when visiting New York City on a budget

Growing up on a farm in North Dakota, I was as far from seeing anything dramatic as one could be.  Although we had miles and miles of wheat on the plains, we had nothing I thought worth writing about.  When I read about New York City (especially Manhattan), I had a hard time imagining what it was like because it was all so foreign to anything I had seen.  

About 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to go to Manhattan on business, and I loved it instantly.  Since then, I have returned for short sightseeing tours probably seven or eight times.  Most times I do much of the same stuff because my goal is not to learn more about the City, but rather to absorb the ambiance.  Nevertheless, I invariably learn about new things to do.  The following is my Top-12 compilation of things that provide a NYC ambiance without breaking the piggy bank (less than $100 total, not including $27 for a 7-day, unlimited-use subway Metro pass):     

  1. Biking from Central Park to Riverside Park.  Most people don’t realize how big Central Park is, but a rental bike makes that size manageable.  At 840 acres, Central Park is almost exactly the size of the Kueber family farm back in North Dakota.  The park is a half-mile wide – from 5th Avenue to 8th Avenue – and two and a half miles long – from 59th Street to 110th Street.  (Some elementary math reveals that there are 20 streets in a Manhattan mile and six avenues.)  Bikes can be rented from an assortment of bike vendors at the south end of Central Park, and paved bike trails will take you completely around the park.  At about 106th Street, there is a sign directing you to a street route about a half-mile long that will take you to Riverside Park alongside the Hudson River.  This park also has miles of paved bike routes that are easy to navigate.  A two-hour bike rental enables you to see much of both parks while riding at a moderate to slow pace.  The rental vendors typically ask for $20 for two hours, but the price is negotiable, depending on the supply & demand at the time you need the bike.  I rented two bikes for two hours for $25 because it was cool and cloudy and business was slow.     
  2. Brooklyn Bridge and Promenade.  The Brooklyn Bridge was constructed in 1883 by German immigrant John Roebling and his son Washington Roebling and at the time was the world’s longest suspension bridge, with a span of nearly 1600 feet, and the Western Hemisphere’s tallest structure.  I highly recommend a 1978 book on the building of the bridge (and late-19th century NYC history) called “The Great Bridge,” by David McCullough.  The Brooklyn Bridge has a large walkway/bikeway that travels above the cars.  I recommend entering in lower Manhattan at Chambers/Centers Street and then walking approximately one mile across to Brooklyn.  Upon arriving in Brooklyn, you can go south to the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights and its famous Brooklyn Heights Promenade.  (Technically, the Promenade [for walking only] is an esplanade [for walking and cars] because it is cantilevered above an expressway.)  The Brooklyn Promenade is famous because it provides an outstanding, unobstructed view of lower Manhattan and is used in countless TV shows and movies because of this backdrop. 
  3. Staten Island Ferry.  The Staten Island Ferry runs from Battery Park in southern Manhattan to northern Staten Island.  The 5-mile, 25-minute free ride goes right in front of the Statue of Liberty.  There isn’t much to see in Staten Island, so most tourists simply turn around and take the next boat back to Manhattan.  Staten Island has a reputation as a working-class bedroom community for Manhattan, and you might recall that the ferry played as a backdrop to one of my all-time favorite movies – Working Girl. 
  4. Yankee game.  Yankee Stadium is located at 161st Street in the southern part of the Bronx, just north of the Harlem River, which separates Manhattan and the Bronx.  Yankee tickets are probably the most expensive in baseball, and the tickets often sell out for decent games, but bargains can be had.  The right field bleacher seats sell for $5, and I was recently able to buy some scalped bleacher tickets for an afternoon game against Detroit for only $10 each.  Old Yankee Stadium was right across the street from the new stadium and is currently an empty lot.
  5. Coney Island boardwalk and the Cyclone roller coaster.  The well-maintained boardwalk on Coney Island in south Brooklyn runs along the Atlantic beach for over two miles (bring your swimsuit) and is served by a variety of food vendors, including the World Famous Nathan’s, which is the site of the annual hotdog eating contest.  The adjoining carnival includes Wonder Wheel, a 150-foot Ferris wheel, and the Cyclone, the oldest wooden roller coaster in America.  A ride on the Cyclone costs only $5 and in my opinion this coaster is rougher than any at Fiesta Texas or Sea World.
  6. Empire State Building.  This iconic 102-story building is located at 5th Avenue and 34th Street.  Since the demise of the Twin Towers, it is the tallest building in New York and dominates the Manhattan skyline.  During my recent visit to the City, there was a large controversy because a developer proposed a new building on 7th Avenue and 34th Street that would be only a few feet shorter than the Empire State Building.  Although the new building might diminish the Empire State Building, its construction has been approved.  The attraction with the Empire State Building is its location in mid-town and its 86th-floor observation deck, which played a major role in the movie Sleepless in Seattle.  I love viewing the City from this deck because it enables you to put everything in context – from lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers to Central Park and from the Hudson River to the East River.  The $20 cost is money well spent.     
  7. Circle Line Cruise.  This cruise can be boarded at Pier 83 at West 42nd Street, which is due west from Times Square.  The cruise ship will take you completely around Manhattan – south on the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey, then north on the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn and Queens, then northwest on the Harlem River between Manhattan and the Bronx, and finally south again on the Hudson River.   I love this 3-hour cruise because, like the view from the top of the Empire State Building, it gives you context to the City.  You can see what downtown, mid-town, and up-town look like from a distance.  With the benefit of a tour guide, you can see how different parts of the city have developed differently.  The cruise is not inexpensive at $35, but I think it is worth that price.   
  8. The Halal Cart on 53rd and 6th.  Food in NYC has a reputation for being expensive, but bargains are available.  The best bargain that I have found is the Halal Cart on 53rd and 6th.  (Halal is to Muslims what kosher is to Jews.)  This food cart doesn’t open until 7pm and closes at 4am.  It sells two types of meat – chicken or gyro (lamb) – in two formats – sandwich wrap ($4) or platter ($6).  The portions are huge and the food is tasty, and because its reputation with the locals in unsurpassed, there is usually a 30-minute line.  See a lengthy descriptive article on Wikipedia.  I’ve been known to visit the Halal Cart for a gyro sandwich three nights in a row.   
  9. The Hi Line park.  This new park was created from an abandoned elevated train track that runs parallel to 10th Avenue, northward from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street.  Eventually the park will extend to 34th Street.    The park provides an excellent view of visually appealing Chelsea and the Meatpacking District and is a respite from the hustle and bustle of the streets below.
  10. Museum Mile.  NYC has several outstanding museums near Central Park, such as the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Although the museums typically charge up to $20 for admission, they routinely offer free admission for 2-4 hours in the late afternoon on specific days, usually Friday or Saturday.  You can learn the days and times by checking on-line.
  11. Chinatown.  If you like flea markets, you will love Canal Street in Chinatown.  This is the home of knock-offs, such as Rolex watches, Oakley sunglasses, bootleg movies and music, and name-brand perfumes and handbags.
  12. Times Square.  Times Square is created by the extended intersection of Broadway and 7th Avenue, from 42nd to 47th Street.  The area used to be seedy, but it is now cleaned up.  It seems that every tourist in NYC goes to Times Square to buy touristy trinkets and outlet-mall type merchandise.  The place is also the most famous location to celebrate New Year’s Eve.  While visiting Times Square, you should consider a side trip to Grand Central Terminal, which can be found at 42nd Street and Park Avenue.  Grand Central is the largest train station in the world, and because of the large number of people who go through it every day (750,000), there is a common expression, “this place is as busy as Grand Central.”

I haven’t included any Broadway productions because they don’t interest me and are expensive.  Most Broadway tickets will cost over $100, and even buying them at 50% off at TKTS in Times Square will still usually require over $50. 

NYC comprises five boroughs – Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.  I apologize to Queens for failing to list anything in their borough worth seeing.  Now they know how we North Dakotans feel.

p.s., a dominant portion of your budget will be consumed by lodging unless you are careful.  But a single, adventuresome traveler can find a bed at a tourist hostel for about $30, and a Spartan hotel room with two beds can be had for less than $100 at the Morningside Inn on 107th Street and 7th Avenue, which is just a few blocks away from Columbia University, Central Park, and Riverside Park.

August 16, 2010

Remedial Texas history – the Alamo

Because I grew up in North Dakota, my high school education included a mandatory course on North Dakota history, learning about Lewis & Clark and the socialistic Non Partisan League.  But that knowledge doesn’t help me much when discussing the history of my adopted home state of Texas.  So last week, when I got into an argument about the Alamo, I was at a distinct disadvantage.  Occasionally, I didn’t know whether I was referring to an actual event or merely something that was a part of John Wayne’s movie.  This weekend, to remedy my historical deficiencies of epic proportions, I went to the local library and picked up three new history books on the Alamo (listed below).  After reading those books, I believe I know as much about the Alamo as the next Texas guy.

Prior to starting my reading, I had two questions that I wanted to answer because they related to the argument that I was having about the Alamo – (1) were the Alamo defenders mercenaries, and (2) were there more Anglos or Mexicans in Texas at the time of the Texas Revolution?

Mercenaries?

The answer to the mercenary question turns on how we define “mercenary.”  Under Article 47 of the Geneva Convention, a mercenary is a person fighting in a war:

  • Who is neither a national of a party nor a resident of territory controlled by a party to the conflict, and
  • Who is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain and, in fact, is promised, by or on behalf of a party to the conflict, material compensation substantially in excess of that promised or paid to combatants of similar ranks and functions in the armed forces of that Party.  Article 47

Based on my readings, it is unreasonable to assert that the Alamo defenders were mercenaries.  Although many of the defenders had recently arrived from a different country (i.e., the United States) and hoped to eventually claim some free land, they were current residents of Texas and were not being paid in excess of the pay to Army regulars.  More importantly, the Alamo defenders clearly had “bought into” the idea of a Texas republic free from the tyranny of Mexico’s centralized government, and that was their motivation.

The “mercenary” question is important for two reasons:

  1. Mercenaries are not entitled to be treated as prisoners of war and can be executed.  That was Santa Anna’s rationale for refusing to give “quarter” to captured combatants at the Alamo and Goliad.  Instead, he had them executed, and his conduct caused some Texians to respond in kind at the Battle of San Jacinto, with the battle cry of “Remember the Alamo” and “Remember Goliad.”
  2. The term “mercenary” negatively connotes that a person is fighting for money and not for altruistic reasons.  (A rare exception is Rick Blaine in “Casablanca.”)  By classifying the Alamo defenders as mercenaries, critics are attempting to justify the refusal to consider them as heroes.    

Ethnic composition

The question about ethnic composition is important because critics of the Battle of the Alamo contend the battle was an example of American imperialism, with Americans taking land away from Mexicans.  My readings, however, reveal that the great majority of Texas residents were Americans:

  • 1820 – fewer than 2,000 Mexicans in Texas
  • 1821 – Mexico wins its freedom from Spain
  • 1822 – first American settlers in Texas (“the 300”)
  • 1824 – Constitution of 1824 adopted
  • 1827 – 12,000 Anglos vs. 7,000 Mexicans
  • 1829 – Emancipation Proclamation was issued to slow immigration
  • 1830 – 16,000 Anglos and 4,000 Mexicans
  • 1835 – 30,000 Anglos and 7,800 Mexicans

Thus, Americans clearly led the way to colonizing Texas and did not displace Mexicans.  Americans were invited by the Mexican government to immigrate to Texas because most Mexicans were unwilling to settle so far from Mexico City.  Americans settled in Texas under Mexico’s Constitution of 1824, which provided for decentralized, local authority.  When Santa Anna abrogated the constitution in 1835 and attempted to establish a centralized tyranny, Texans refused to give up their liberty and war followed.

Although the treaty following the Texas War for Independence guaranteed that Mexicans living in Texas (Tejanos) would retain their property, there is evidence that following the war, many Tejanos were separated from their property and marginalized in their new country.  These actions were probably analogous to Jim Crow laws in the South and are a negative stain on Texas.  I don’t think, however, they should stain the sacrifice of those who died in the Alamo.     

(The ethnic composition of Texas was similar to that of the entire southwest.  After the Mexican Cession in 1848, following the Mexican-American War, the 1850 census revealed that Mexican-Americans comprised about 20% of the population of the ceded area.)

Slavery

Critics of the Alamo contend that slavery caused the Texas War for Independence, just as slavery caused America’s Civil War.  Although there were about 5,000 slaves in Texas in 1836, and although Mexico was in the process of phasing out slavery in Texas, there was no strong evidence in my readings that slavery was a dominant reason for the Texians to fight Santa Anna’s tyranny.   

Why do some Mexican-Americans hate the Alamo?

According to one of the books that I read (Remembering the Alamo, by Richard R. Flores), the Alamo was not initially the great symbol of liberty that it has become today.  He suggests, I think, that it became a symbol in the 20th century as a time when Anglos needed something to symbolize their dominance over Mexican-Americans.  His theories were too deep for me to understand.

According to Rosie Castro, our mayor’s mother, the defenders of the Alamo included mostly despicable men.  I didn’t see any evidence of that, but there were reports that many of the later-arriving immigrants (not  Austin’s original 300) had checkered, unsuccessful pasts.  This, however, should not be surprising because people in solid situations are not likely to take a chance in the wilderness.

The books

Remembering the Alamo,

Memory, Modernity, and the Master Symbol

Richard R. Flores

2002

Lone Star Rising,

The Revolutionary Birth of the Texas Republic

William C. Davis

2004

Alamo Sourcebook 1836,

A Comprehensive Guide to the Alamo and the Texas Revolution

Tim J. & Terry S. Todish

1998

August 13, 2010

Further thoughts on patriotism

America, love it or leave it.”  I remember that catch-phrase being thrown at people who were opposed to the Vietnam War.  Somehow it didn’t ring true to me then.  Just like the phrase from war-hero Stephen Decatur in 1820, “My country, right or wrong.”  Were Americans supposed to be blindly supportive of our country when it was going down the wrong track?  That was not my idea of civic virtue.

A few days ago, however, I received some critical comments from a reader who thought I should be more understanding of Hispanics who have negative thoughts about the Alamo.  In the course of multiple exchanges on my Facebook account, the reader referred me to an article that articulated why Anglos should not expect Hispanics to glorify the Alamo – http://revcom.us/a/1237/alamo.htm.  The article is titled, “Remember the Alamo? Hell NO,” by Travis Morales. 

According to the Morales, the Texas War for Independence was caused generally by American imperialism (northern capitalists and southern slave-owners) and was triggered by the decision in Mexico City to abolish slavery.  He claimed that the defenders of the Alamo were mercenaries (and alcoholics, rapists, and murderers) who had been enticed to Texas by the slave-owners with promises of free land:

  • I want to say that these mother fuckers Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Barrett Travis and all the rest got exactly what they deserved–death! They were a bunch of professional Indian killers, slave traders, and mercenaries who invaded Texas, and then stole it from México so it could be a slave state. And the war waged upon them by México was a just war!”
  • “But to honor the Alamo is to honor a U.S. war of plunder and conquest, the theft of almost one-half of México, and the ongoing oppression of the Chicano people. What is the battle cry “Remember the Alamo!” except a battle cry to kill Mexicanos and Chicanos?”

After reading the article, I suggested to the reader that the author of the article seemed to hate America so thoroughly that “love it or leave it” might apply to him.  I did not make that comment lightly, but it did not make sense to me for a person to stay in America when he so clearly preferred Mexico.  The reader responded that a person shouldn’t have to leave America just because he is critical of important government policies, like slavery, imperialism, and exploitation.  When I pointed out that the author of article was a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, which wanted to destroy American as we know it, the reader responded that ad hominem comments don’t defeat the commie’s reasoning.

Which brings me back to the original question – can you be fundamentally ashamed of America’s past and present and still be patriotic?  First, we need to define patriotism. 

Dictionaries define patriotism as love and devotion to your country and willingness to sacrifice for it.  And they distinguish it from nationalism – patriotism is the ideal of social cohesion, humanitarianism, equality, and harmony within one’s own society, while nationalism is the struggle to put one’s own nation ahead of other nations, perceived as external rivals or threats. 

One survey that was comparing patriotism among countries asked a sample population, “Are you proud to be [insert nationality]?  America scored at the top; Germany scored at the bottom.  I think such a question measures nationalism more than patriotism.  I think a better standard for patriotism is a phrase from Kennedy’s Inaugural Address calling for patriotism – “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” 

With that in mind, I feel compelled to concede that people who have grave misgivings about America’s past or present may still be patriots.  Such people might still want America to succeed and may be willing to sacrifice for America to achieve that success. 

As Benjamin Franklin said at the close of the constitutional convention to a woman who asked Franklin what type of government the Constitution was bringing into existence – “A republic, if you can keep it.”  Dissidents may be trying their civic best to keep our republic functioning effectively.  But not Travis Morales.  He doesn’t want to improve America; he wants to destroy it.

August 11, 2010

A Blackjack Primer

Gambling destinations have become some of the most popular places to vacation in America.  Although these destinations have expanded their range of attractions to include shows, food, golf, water activities, and amusement parks, their core competency is still gambling, and it doesn’t seem right to go to Vegas without spending some time gambling.  If you are undecided about what form of gambling you want to do, I suggest that you consider blackjack (also known as twenty-one). 

I prefer blackjack for two primary reasons:

  1. Your odds of winning, if you play properly, are the highest of any form of gambling – i.e., over 49% – although bad players can win as few as 40% of their hands.
  2. Playing properly requires mental acuity and provides mental stimulation.

I am assuming you know the rules to blackjack.  If you don’t, you can find an excellent description of them at the bottom of this entry.  Beyond knowing the rules, the key to improving your chances of winning a blackjack hand from as low as 40% to over 49% is to employ the correct strategy. 

Every hand begins with the dealer showing one card and the player showing two cards.  Thus, the dealer has ten possible values (2-10 and ace), and the player has 30 possible values, including hard hands (without an ace), soft hands (with an ace), and pairs.    

Blackjack experts have used mathematical models and billions of computerized game simulations to determine the correct strategy for each variation.  The problem is that if you create a matrix with ten columns for the dealer’s possible values and 30 rows for the player’s possible values, you will end up with a 300-cell matrix that tells you whether to hit, hold, split, double-down, or surrender (if allowed).  You can see an example of a 300-cell matrix at http://www.blackjackinfo.com/bjbse.php.  

Most players aren’t willing to devote the mental energy to remember each of the 300 plays.  To help these non-obsessed players, there are a variety of blackjack strategies that simplify and generalize the correct strategy without significantly reducing your chance of winning.  My favorite is called the Wizard’s Strategy, by the Wizard of Odds.  His simplified strategy consists of only 21 cells (two columns for dealer values and eleven rows for player values), and he claims it causes only .14% in incorrect moves.  He previously published a Simple Strategy with only seven rules, but that system cost .53% in incorrect moves.  You can see the Wizard’s Strategy in matrix form at http://wizardofodds.com/blackjack.

I have converted the Wizard’s Strategy to an alternative format that I think is easier to memorize.  The format is from the perspective of what the dealer’s cards are, whereas the Wizard’s matrix format is from the perspective of what the player’s cards are.  

Alternative Format for Wizard’s Strategy – the dealer’s cards

If the dealer has 2 to 6:

  • Stop when you reach 12
  • If you have an ace, stop when you reach 19
  • If you have a hard 9, a soft 16-18, or a 10-11 with more than dealer – double down
  • If you have two 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, or A – split

If the dealer has 7 to A:

  • Stop when you reach 17
  • If you have an ace, stop when you reach 19
  • If you have a 10-11 with more than dealer – double down
  • If you have an 8 or A – split

Surrender only at 16 to 10

Never take insurance

Although I previously indicated that the correct blackjack strategy for each of the 300 variations has been definitively determined by computer simulations and mathematical modeling, that is not exactly true.  I have compared the 300-cell matrices on various websites, and they invariably contain a few differences.  I suspect the mathematical modeling or computer simulations aren’t as precise as the gurus implies.

Card-counting

You may have heard of card-counting in blackjack.  What that means is that some players have the mental acuity to remember not only the 300 different plays, but also the cards that have been previously played from the deck.  When the cards in the deck remaining to be played are favorable to card-counting players, they dramatically increase their bet; when the remaining cards are unfavorable, they decrease their bet.  Casinos don’t allow card-counting because these people can actually have more than a 50% chance of winning.  Thus, successful card-counters are routinely and unceremoniously ejected by casinos if detected. 

Most card-counters don’t actually keep track of each card played.  Instead, they keep a running tally of whether more high cards (9-A) have been played relative to low cards (2-8).  If there is high ratio of high cards remaining to be played, that is good for the player because those high cards are likely to cause the dealer to break.  The ultimate card-counter might also alter his 300-cell strategy depending on knowledge of which cards remain to be played.  Casinos minimize the effectiveness of card counting by playing with several decks at once and then re-shuffling often.  You are probably better off learning the full, 300-cell strategy before attempting to pull some useful information from counting cards.

North Dakota legalized limited charitable gambling in the early 80s, and it was limited to pull tabs and blackjack.  I can’t remember what prompted me to first play, but I became enamored and started studying the blackjack strategies in books and then spending several hours playing (if my $20 didn’t run out sooner).  Blackjack and I connected emotionally and intellectually because (1) it favors consistent, steady play instead of big risks, and (2) it keeps your mind working, as opposed to the mind-numbing playing of one-arm bandits.   

If you haven’t played blackjack with a strategy based on math instead of intuition, give it a try.  You may be surprised how much fun you have, how quickly time passes, and how long your money lasts.

 

The Rules of Blackjack, as described by WizardofOdds.com (http://wizardofodds.com/blackjack)

Blackjack can be played with one to eight ordinary decks of cards. Cards of rank 2 through 10 are scored according to their face value. All face cards are 10 points. Aces are semi-wild and can be worth either 1 or 11 points. The highest hand in blackjack is an ace and any 10-point card and is called a blackjack. A winning blackjack pays 3 to 2. If both player and dealer have a blackjack the bet is a push. Aside from a blackjack, a winning hand pays even money. The player wins if his hand has more points than the dealer, without going over 21. Thus, a 21-point hand is the highest and is why the game is sometimes called 21. If either the player or dealer go over 21 it is called a break or bust and a busted hand automatically loses. If both the player and the dealer bust the player loses, where lies the house advantage. If the player and the dealer tie, the bet is a push.

A round of blackjack begins with each player placing a bet in the circle or logo directly in front of him. Then the dealer will give each player and himself two cards. Player cards are usually dealt face up. One dealer card is dealt face up (the up card) and the other face down (the hole card). If the dealer has a ten or an ace as the up card it is possible he has a blackjack, in which case all player hands will lose except those with another blackjack. In the U.S. the dealer will check for blackjack immediately, if one is possible, and will collect all losing bets immediately if he does have a blackjack.

In the event the dealer has an ace as the up card he will allow the players to insure their hands against a blackjack. This is much like any insurance policy in which you are betting something bad will happen. The insurance bet in blackjack pays 2:1 if the dealer has a blackjack. If the dealer has an ace showing and a player has a blackjack the dealer may ask “even money?” This is because if the player has a blackjack the net result of both the blackjack and the insurance bet will be an even money win regardless of whether the dealer has a blackjack. After all players have had a chance to accept or decline insurance the dealer will check the hole card.

After it has been established that the dealer does not have a blackjack the players in turn may play their hands. The following options are available.

Stand: If the player is satisfied with his hand as-is he may stand pat. To signify you wish to stand, wave your hand as if to wave the dealer away. In a single deck game, tuck your cards face down under your bet.

Hit: If the player wishes to take another card he may continue to do so until he either stands or busts. To signify you wish to hit, tap the table with your finger. In a single deck game, scrape your cards lightly against the felt.

Double: If the player feels he needs one and only one more card then he may double his bet and be dealt one more card, good or bad. This option is only offered on the first two cards, and sometimes on the first two cards after splitting. To signify you wish to double, place another wager next to your original wager of equal value. In single deck, place your cards face up by your bet.

Split: If the player’s first two cards are of equal point value he may split them into two hands. In this event each card is the first card of a new hand. The player must also make another wager, of equal value to the first wager, for the second hand. Splitting after splitting is allowed; however, resplitting aces is often an exception. The player may usually split up to 2 or 3 times if another splitting opportunity arises. Doubling after splitting is usually but not always allowed. To signify you wish to split put the additional wager next to the original wager. In single deck, place your cards face up by your bet.

Surrender: Finally, some casinos offer the player the option to surrender on the first two cards. If the player does not like his prospects he may forfeit half the bet as well as his cards. If the dealer has a ten or ace showing, and the dealer peeks at his hole card for a blackjack before the first player’s turn, then the option is called “late surrender.” If the dealer does not check for blackjack, or does not take a hole card at all, then the option is called “early surrender.” Early surrender is much better for the player, because of the protection against a dealer blackjack.

After all players have played their hands, from the dealer’s left to right, the dealer will play his hand. The dealer has no free will but must always play by certain house rules. Usually the rule is that the dealer must hit until he reaches a score of 17 or more. Some casinos stipulate that if the dealer has a soft 17, an ace and any number of cards totaling 6, he must also hit. If the dealer busts, all players that did not bust automatically win.

August 10, 2010

Swim thoughts for a neophyte

In the golfing world, a “swing thought” is a short catch-phrase that golfers think about during their swing to focus on a particular area that needs improvement.  I believe this concept is even more useful when applied to neophyte swimmers. 

The problem with swing thoughts in golfing is that, for most of us, there are too many things that can go wrong, so we end up having too many swing thoughts – e.g., keep your elbow straight, lighten your grip, slow your tempo, your head steady, hit down on the ball.  Because of this, many golf pros who swear by swing thoughts also advise (a) limiting swing thoughts to one or two, and (b) using swing thoughts at practice, not in competition.

A few days ago I realized that I was practicing the same concept in swimming.  As I was swimming laps at Lifetime Fitness, I found myself thinking about three swim thoughts from a book that I had read many years earlier.  The book is titled, “Total Immersion” by Terry Laughlin.  Obviously, there is a lot of information in the book, but after all these years I still remember three fundamental swim thoughts:

  1. Swim on your side.  When I was first struggling to learn how to swim distances, I remember a helpful lifeguard noting that I looked too stiff in the water.  Although I appreciated her helpfulness, I didn’t know what she meant.  Subsequently, I learned from Total Immersion that swimmers move through the water more efficiently on their side, like a sleek boat, instead of on their belly, like a slow flat-bottom boat.  Therefore, with each stroke, a swimmer should rock from one side to the other.
  2. Swim long.  By swimming long, Terry Laughlin means stretching each arm forward as much as you can before beginning the stroke.  While fully extended, your arm slices the water so that the remainder of the body can efficiently flow behind.  (The motions of swimming long and on your side also enable muscles other than your arm and shoulder muscles to be involved in the stroke.  Sharing the load with other muscles improves your endurance.)
  3. Swim downhill.  This is the most important swim thought.  By swimming downhill, Laughlin means keeping your head and chest down in the water and your hips and legs near the top of the water.  By far, the most common problem for neophyte swimmers is the tendency to keep their head and shoulders high, which in turn causes the hips and legs to sink and become quasi-anchors.  It is impossible to swim efficiently when your hips and legs have become an anchor.  The correct swim posture doesn’t come naturally; you have to think about it.   

Just as swing thoughts can make you more effective on the golf course, these three swim thoughts can make you more efficient in the pool.

The Alamo and American exceptionalism – part II

I recently posted a blog entry titled “Remember the Alamo.”  https://mkueber001.wordpress.com/2010/08/08/remember-the-alamo/.   In the post, I described my surprise to learn that some San Antonians didn’t think the defenders of the Alamo deserved all the glory that has been heaped on them.  These people were disparaging not only Texas’s greatest tourist attraction, but also one of the greatest symbols of liberty and bravery in all of America. 

Since posting the Alamo blog, I have received comments from a couple of individuals who suggested that Hispanic resentment toward the Alamo was understandable and reasonable.  From their perspective, the Alamo was a sign of American imperialism, and the Alamo defenders were lawless mercenaries attempting to make Texas safe for slavery.  A Facebook friend and former neighbor, Marshall Britt, provided me with the link to an article that documented many of these so-called facts – see  http://revcom.us/a/1237/alamo.htm.  Although the article makes fascinating reading, you might question the author’s credibility if you knew he was a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, whose three main points are:

  1. The whole system we now live under is based on exploitation—here and all over the world. It is completely worthless and no basic change for the better can come about until this system is overthrown.
  2. Many different groups will protest and rebel against things this system does, and these protests and rebellions should be supported and strengthened. Yet it is only those with nothing to lose but their chains who can be the backbone of a struggle to actually overthrow this system and create a new system that will put an end to exploitation and help pave the way to a whole new world.
  3. Such a revolutionary struggle is possible. There is a political Party that can lead such a struggle, a political Party that speaks and acts for those with nothing to lose but their chains: The Revolutionary Communist Party, USA.

If you go to my Facebook account, you can read my lengthy exchange with Marshall.  Unfortunately, our discussion did not lead us to any common ground, and we each ended up thinking the other was irretrievably lost.  The chasm between our thinking is unbridgeable because Marshall thinks America has a sordid history that we need to overcome while I think America has been a “city on a hill” for the rest of the world.

The “city on a hill” descriptor of America has been used throughout its history, beginning with Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1831 book Democracy in America.  The descriptor also exemplifies “American exceptionalism,” which is a belief that America and its people differ from other countries.  See my earlier blog entry at https://mkueber001.wordpress.com/?s=american+exceptionalism

Why is America unique?  A theory is that our development as a country was unique.  Our national character was forged by (1) an immigrant stock that included people from many countries, religions, and ethnicities, and (2) an expansive frontier that rewarded hard work, self-reliance, and practicality.  Our forefathers created the world’s first representative democracy, which was founded on the principle that everyone was created equal and was entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  From this rock-solid base, we have created an American Way, with the rule of law, equal-opportunity meritocracy, liberty, free enterprise, civic virtue, the common good, justice, and private property.       

Of course, critics deny the existence of American exceptionalism.  To them, the concept is mere jingoism or nationalistic propaganda.  For proof, they point to other countries in the past who thought they were special (Great Britain, Nazi Germany, Rome, Spanish Empire, etc.).  They also point to obvious stains on American history (slavery, American imperialism, etc.)

I think the critics are wrong.  No one is saying that America has been perfect or is perfect or that it will remain a “city on a hill” forever.  I am only saying that America has historically played a special role in the advancement of mankind and is positioned to continue playing that role throughout this century.  Let’s not mess it up; let’s continue being the world’s role model.

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